Recognized as the greatest American editor of fiction, William Maxwell Evarts Perkins (1884-1947) was legendary in his lifetime for discovering and developing brilliant authors.
Maxwell Perkins was born on September 20, 1884, in New York City; grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey; attended St. Paul's Academy in Concord, New Hampshire; and graduated from Harvard College in 1907. Although an economics major in college, Perkins had the good sense to also study under Charles Townsend Copeland, a famous teacher of literature who helped prepare Perkins for his calling.
After working as a reporter for The New York Times, Perkins joined the venerable publishing house of Charles Scribner's Sons in 1910. That same year he married Louise Saunders, also of Plainfield, who would bear him five daughters. At the time he joined it, Scribner's was known for publishing eminently respectable authors such as John Galsworthy, Henry James, and Edith Wharton. However, much as he admired these older giants, Perkins wished to bring Scribner's into the 20th century by publishing younger writers. Unlike most editors, he actively sought out promising new artists and made his first big find in 1919 when he signed F. Scott Fitzgerald. This was no easy task, for no one at Scribner's except Perkins had liked The Romantic Egotist, the working title of Fitzgerald's first novel, and it was rejected. Even so, Perkins worked with Fitzgerald to drastically revise the manuscript and then lobbied it through the house until he wore down his colleagues' resistance.
The publication of This Side of Paradise (1920) marked the arrival of a new literary generation that would always be associated with Perkins. Fitzgerald's profligacy and alcoholism put great strain on his relationship with Perkins. Nonetheless, Perkins remained his friend as well as his editor to the end of Fitzgerald's too-short life, advancing him money, making personal loans, and encouraging the unstable genius in every way. Perkins rendered yeoman service as an editor too, particularly in helping Fitzgerald with The Great Gatsby (1925), his masterpiece, which benefitted substantially from Perkins' criticism.
It was through Fitzgerald that Perkins met Ernest Hemingway, publishing his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, in 1926. A daring book for the times, Perkins had to fight for it over objections to Hemingway's profanity raised by traditionalists in the firm. The commercial success of Hemingway's next novel, A Farewell to Arms (1929), which rose to number one on the best-seller list, put an end to questions about Perkins' editorial judgment.
The greatest professional challenge Perkins ever faced was posed by Thomas Wolfe, whose talent was matched only by his lack of artistic self-discipline. Unlike most writers, who are often blocked, words poured out of Wolfe like a mighty Niagara. A blessing in some ways, this was a curse too, as Wolfe's affection for each and every one of his sentences was boundless. After a tremendous struggle, Perkins induced Wolfe to cut 90, 000 words from his first novel, Look Homeward Angel (1929). His next, Of Time and the River (1935), was the result of a two-year battle during which Wolfe kept writing more and more pages in the face of an ultimately victorious effort by Perkins to hold the line on size. Grateful to Perkins at first for discovering him and helping him realize his potential, Wolfe later came to resent the popular perception that he owed his success to his editor. This was true in part, for without Perkins' firm hand it is unlikely that Wolfe could have been published. Wolfe left Scribner's after provoking numerous fights with Perkins to justify his departure. This ingratitude hurt Perkins, but did not keep him from serving selflessly as Wolfe's literary executor after his untimely death in 1938.
Although his reputation as an editor is most closely linked to these three, Perkins worked with many other writers. He was the first to publish J.P. Marquand and Erskine Caldwell. His advice was responsible for the enormous success of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, whose The Yearling (1938) grew out of suggestions made by Perkins. It became a runaway best-seller and won the Pulitzer Prize. Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country (1946) was another highly successful Perkins book. His last discovery was James Jones, who approached Perkins in 1945. Perkins persuaded Jones to abandon the novel he was working on at that time and launched him on what would become From Here to Eternity (1951). By this time Perkins' health was failing and he did not live to see its success, nor that of Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea (1952), which was dedicated to his memory. Perkins died on June 17, 1947 in Stamford, Connecticut.
Perkins was noted for his courtesy and thoughtfulness, which, though justly admired, are not what made him great. Among his gifts, two in particular stand out. He recognized good writing wherever he found it and nursed along writers as few editors did. That Ring Lardner has a reputation today, for example, is owing to the fact that Perkins saw him as more than a syndicated humorist. Perkins believed in Lardner more than the writer did in himself, and despite the failure of several earlier collections he coaxed Lardner into letting him assemble another under the title How To Write Short Stories (1924). The book sold well and, thanks to excellent reviews, established Lardner as a literary figure.
Apart from his roles as coach, friend, and promoter, Perkins was unusual among editors for the close and detailed attention he gave to books, and for what the novelist Vance Bourjaily, another of his discoveries, called his "infallible sense of structure." Although he never pretended to be an artist himself, Perkins could often see where an author ought to go more clearly than the writer did. That was true even of Fitzgerald, whose craftsmanship was exemplary. For this, and for his nurturing of talent, American literature is much in his debt.
There is only one biography of Perkins, the excellent A. Scott Berg, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (1978). Perkins' editorial papers are in the Charles Scribner's Sons collection at Princeton University. Perkins became known to the general public in his lifetime as a result of a profile by Malcolm Cowley, "Unshaken Friend, " New Yorker (April 1 and 8, 1944). □